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The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club
There were a number of famous coaching inns in the Borough, Southwark, since this was the main London to Canterbury road. Probably the best known of the inns was the Tabard and pilgrims on their way to the tomb of Thomas a Becket used it as a starting point, as was we know from Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales'. Like the other Borough inns, the Tabard was built around a large courtyard with galleries on three sides. The same style was adopted at the White Hart, the inn at which readers of Pickwick Paper are introduced to Sam Weller. Both the Tabard and the White Hart were demolished in the late nineteenth century but one of their sisters survives not far from London Bridge. The George is the last remaining galleried inn in London and although only one wing of the original three is left standing, there is enough of it to give the onlooker the feel of the place as it was and as the White Hart was, when Dickens wrote the following description.
"In the Borough especially, there still remain some half dozen old inns, which have preserved their external features unchanged, and which have escaped alike the rage for public improvement, and the encroachments of private speculation. Great, rambling, queer, old places they are, with galleries, and passages, and staircases, wide enough and antiquated enough to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories, supposing we should ever be reduced to the lamentable necessity of inventing any, and that the world should exist long enough to exhaust the innumerable veracious legends connected with old London Bridge, and its adjacent neighbourhood on the Surrey side.
It was in the yard of one of these inns - of no less celebrated a one than the White Hart - that a man was busily employed in brushing the dirt off a pair of boots, early on the morning succeeding the events narrated in the last chapter. He was habited in a coarse-striped waistcoat, with black calico sleeves, and blue glass buttons; drab breeches and leggings. A bright red handkerchief was wound in a very loose and unstudied style round his neck, and an old white hat was carelessly thrown on one side of his head. There were two rows of boots before him, one cleaned and the other dirty, and at every addition he made to the clean row, he paused from his work, and contemplated its results with evident satisfaction.
The yard presented none of that bustle and activity which are the usual characteristics of a large coach inn. Three or four lumbering wagons, each with a pile of goods beneath its ample canopy, about the height of the second-floor window of an ordinary house, were stowed away beneath a lofty roof which extended over one end of the yard; and another, which was probably to commence its journey that morning, was drawn out into the open space. A double tier of bed-room galleries, with old clumsy balustrades, ran round two sides of the straggling area, and a double row of bells to correspond, sheltered from the weather by a little sloping roof, hung over the door leading to the bar and coffee-room. Two or three gigs and chaise-carts were wheeled up under different little sheds and pent-houses; and the occasional heavy tread of a cart-horse, or rattling of a chain at the further end of the yard, announced to anybody who cared about the matter, that the stable lay in that direction. When we add that a few boys in smock frocks were lying asleep on heavy packages, woolpacks, and other articles that were scattered about on heaps of straw, we have described as fully as need be the general appearance of the yard of the White Hart Inn, High Street, Borough, on the particular morning in question."
Some of the black and battered balusters which supported the 'clumsy balustrade' mentioned here were rescued when the White Hart was demolished and can now be seen in the basement of Dickens' House Museum.
Dickens was a passionate critic of the injustices of his day and he used his novels to drive home his message. He was particularly incensed about the unequal treatment dealt out to the poor who, on top of other miseries, frequently found themselves imprisoned for debt. Two of London's most notorious debtor's prisons were the Fleet and the Marshalsea and both are described in Pickwick Papers. The Fleet prison was demolished in 1844 but Dickens gives a vivid picture of its latter days when he has Pickwick imprisoned there for several months after an action for debt is taken against him by his landlady, Mrs Bardell.
"This," said the gentleman, thrusting his hands into his pockets, and looking carelessly over his shoulder to Mr. Pickwick, "This here is the hall flight."
"Oh," replied Mr. Pickwick, looking down a dark and filthy staircase, which appeared to lead to a range of damp and gloomy stone vaults, beneath the ground, "and those, I suppose, are the little cellars where the prisoners keep their small quantities of coals. Unpleasant places to have to go down to; but very convenient, I dare say."
"Yes, I shouldn't wonder if they was convenient," replied the gentleman,
"seeing that a few people live there, pretty snug. That's the Fair, that is."
"My friend," said Mr. Pickwick, "you don't really mean to say that human beings live down in those wretched dungeons?"
""Don't I?" replied Mr. Roker, with indignant astonishment; "why shouldn't I?"
"Live! Live down there!" exclaimed Mr. Pickwick.
"Live down there! Yes, and die down there, too, wery often!" replied Mr. Roker; "and what of that? Who's got to say anything agin it? Live down there! Yes, and a wery good place it is to live in, ain't it?"
Conditions at the infamous Marshalsea Prison, which features so strongly in Little Dorrit, are described in a similarly lurid way when Dickens relates The Old Man's Tale About The Queer Client in Chapter 21.
"In the Borough High Street, near Saint George's Church, and on the same side of the way, stands, as most people know, the smallest of our debtors' prisons, the Marshalsea. Although in later times it has been a very different place from the sink of filth and dirt it once was, even its improved condition holds out but little temptation to the extravagant, or consolation to the improvident. The condemned felon has as good a yard for air and exercise in Newgate, as the insolvent debtor in the Marshalsea Prison.
"It may be my fancy, or it may be that I cannot separate the place from the old recollections associated with it, but this part of London I cannot bear. The street is broad, the shops are spacious, the noise of passing vehicles, the footsteps of a perpetual stream of people - all the busy sounds of traffic, resound in it from morn to midnight, but the streets around are mean and close; poverty and debauchery lie festering in the crowded alleys; want and misfortune are pent up in the narrow prison; an air of gloom and dreariness seems, in my eyes at least, to hang about the scene, and to impart to it a squalid and sickly hue.'
Copyright © Jan Collie 2002
Published by permission of the author.
All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication may be made without written permission.